Arthur Horner (1894 – 1968) was a miner, a communist, a conscientious objector of the First World War and a trade unionist. Born in Merthr Tydfil, South Wales, he was politicised in the early twentieth century by the rise of the Scottish socialist leader Keir Hardie, the first Labour member of the House of Commons in Westminster, and by the rise of militant trade unionism in Wales.
What makes Horner a suitable candidate for a blog post on Come Here To Me? He offers one of the most unusual stories of the Irish revolutionary period; inspired by events in Ireland (the Dublin Lockout and Easter Rising in particular), and ignoring his call-up papers for military service during the First World War, Horner arrived in Dublin in 1917, aligning himself with the recently reformed Irish Citizen Army. To Horner, it was an important act of solidarity. He remembered (in his memoir Incorrigible Rebel) that “the Citizen Army, which Connolly created, represented to me the only possible struggle –a movement of the working class aimed at economic as well as political freedom.”
Wales and the Easter Rising:
In the popular history of the Easter Rising, the small Welsh village of Frongoch holds a special place. Located in Gwynedd, North Wales, it became home for many of the rebel participants in the Easter Rising, and indeed for those who were swept up in the policy of internment that followed the insurrection. Frongoch offered the republican movement a change to regroup and to discuss strategy in light of the military failure of the Easter Rising; while the men also immersed themselves in language and political discussion groups. Michael O’Flanagan, a young member of the Irish Volunteers, recalled that the reception that greeted the rebels in Wales was somewhat different to that back in Dublin, as “When we arrived at Balla station which was the point at which we left the train for Frongoch we got a very friendly reception from the Welsh people who had assembled in large numbers on the platform.” He remembered that it didn’t take the camp internees long to get “settled down to the usual camp routine in Frongoch, attending lectures, route marches, Irish classes and so forth.”
The mines of South Wales were far removed from the sleepy village of Frongoch however. In the immediate aftermath of the Rising, an unusual figure arrived in the valleys of Rhondda and Aberdare, seeking to win support for James Connolly, the Scottish rebel leader who found himself a prisoner in Dublin Castle. Captain Jack White DSO was the son of the famed British Field Marshall George White, and like his father he was a veteran of the Second Boer War, fought in South Africa between 1899 and 1902. In many ways however, his life had taken many unusual turns since South Africa. A committed revolutionary, he had helped establish the Irish Citizen Army in 1913, which emerged from the violence of the Dublin Lockout. Though no longer a member of the workers’ militia, he hoped to rally support among the miners of South Wales for strike action, which he hoped could save the life of Connolly. In his colourful (and, at times, totally bonkers) memoir, White noted that:
In short, I am arrested in the South Wales coalfield for trying to get the Welsh miners out on strike. Why? To save Jim Connolly being shot for his share in the Easter Rising in command of the Citizen Army. Had I succeeded I would have crippled the coal supply for the British Fleet.
White was handed down two sentences of three months each in Aderdare on 25 May, for trying “to sow the seeds of sedition in an area which had nothing to do with the grievances of Ireland either real or imaginary”, and at a time when “a peaceful settlement was being arrived at.” It was to the loss of the Irish trade union movement that the so-called “peaceful settlement” in Dublin involved the execution of James Connolly, blindfolded and tied to a chair. While White had failed in preventing the murder of Connolly, his death and the other shootings did impact public opinion. In Manchester, The Guardian proclaimed that “the executions are becoming an atrocity.”
While White had failed in his ambition of bringing Welsh miners out in strike, there did exist some sympathy with Irish trade unionism in the mines of Wales; as the historian Paul O’Leary has noted, this sympathy rested not with the nationalist tradition, but rather “”largely out of common cause with Jim Larkin and the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union, and sympathy with the suffering endured in the 1913 Dublin strike.” James Connolly had expressed support for the miners of South Wales in 1915 following a successful strike, writing in The Workers’ Republic that:
We wish this week to congratulate our Welsh Comrades upon the successful outcome of their resistance to the attempt of the Government to dragoon them into submission. We congratulate them all the more heartily because we realise that had the Government succeeded in terrorising them we might all have bidden a long farewell to our industrial liberties. Successful in Wales, the capitalist class that runs these islands would have been ruthless in Ireland. We are aware, of course, that the people of this country do not possess the same public rights as are freely exercised in Great Britain. But we also know that the measure of liberty enjoyed in Great Britain has a direct bearing upon the measure of liberty permitted in Ireland.
It was the political sympathies of some Welsh miners that would allow a young Arthur Horner to join the republican movement in Dublin.
How did Arthur Horner end up in Ireland?
Avoiding service for the Empire during the seemingly never-ending war created great difficulty for Horner and young men like him. He recalled that:
Sometimes I used to sneak home at weekends. The military police used to swoop on the house from time to time, but never when I was there. It was a frustrating life. I could not take any serious part in political activities….
He remembered going along to a meeting by Walton Newbold in the Miners’ Hall at Yunshir “on the struggle of the Irish people, with particular reference to Jim Connolly.” Newbold, from Lancashire, was a veteran of progressive politics. He had joined the Fabian Society in 1908, before joining the Independent Labour Party in 1910, and becoming a conscientious objector to the slaughter of the First World War. In 1917, he had joined the British Socialist Party.
Horner recalled that “some of the miners offered to help me to get away to join the struggle in Ireland. By this time, the police were on the track.” Horner claims that it was “sympathisers with the Irish cause” who got him on a boat to Dublin. His partner was four months pregnant at the time, though “she sent me away with a brave smile.”
Horner’s sympathies with Ireland were based not only on class, but also nationality:
As a small nationality ourselves, we had watched with sympathy the Irish people’s fight for independence long before the war broke out. When war came we were told the fighting in France was for the rights of small nations. But we recalled that Lord Carson and F.E Smith (later Lord Birkenhead) had threatened civil war rather than accept the Home Rule act….So it is easy to understand how we, who had seen the viciousness of the coal owners, regarded what was happening in Ireland as the real struggle for the rights of small nations in a war-torn world.
Arriving in Dublin, Horner “was sent to a house in Redmond Hill. There I enlisted in the Citizen Army and joined the Irish Transport Union. Everything was well organised.” He adopted name Jack O’Brien; “to cover my Welsh accent I said I had mixed with Welsh immigrants in America, and was unable to return to America because of the war. It sounded a bit thin to me, but I got away with it.”
Like with the present centenary, the fiftieth anniversary of the rebellion in 1966 saw a renewed interest in the revolutionary period, and an Irish Independent article on Horner in April 1966 noted that he “found a congenial niche with a firm of druggists in Westmoreland Street, and trained in the Dublin hills with the remnant of the Citizen Army…Horner’s daughter was born while he was in Dublin…” Before working in a druggists, he had briefly worked as a window cleaner, but he didn’t feel it a profession for him; Horner joked that “I don’t mind being killed for Ireland’s freedom, but I’m not having someone write home to the Welsh miners telling them Arthur Horner was killed cleaning windows at sixpence a time!”
The Irish Citizen Army in the aftermath of the Easter Rising:
The Irish Citizen Army was never a particularly large body, and it lost much in the Easter Rising. Not alone were some of its leading figures killed, such as Captain Seán Connolly and the executed leaders Mallin and Connolly, but the organisation had to contend with the growing lure of the IRA in the years that followed, and the more public body drew many members from its ranks.
A new leadership, led by Commandant James O’Neill, attempted to put some shape on the organisation. O’Neill had been a very significant figure in the Easter Rising, and with experience as a bomb maker, he found himself serving as Quarter Master General in the GPO. A committed trade unionist, O’Neill (of St. Catherines Park, Leixlip), had “led the Lucan and Leixlip contingents of the recently formed Irish Citizen Army on the march to Dublin” during the Lockout of 1913, when a large trade union rally took place at Croydon Park in Marino (see this article for more).
By trade, O’Neill worked in construction. He took charge of the restoration of Liberty Hall, which had endured structural damage during the Easter Rising, having been shelled by the Helga on the River Liffey. Under O’Neill’s command, the Citizen Army would play a peripheral (but still very important) role in the War of Independence that lay ahead. The ICA did important work in the field of intelligence, secured weaponry for the republican movement through sympathetic men in the British armed forces and members working in the docks, and the ICA were later centrally involved in the enforcement of the Belfast Boycott. In 1917 however, the focus of the ICA was on reorganising itself and putting some structure on the organisation. Some in the organised labour movement were hostile to the workers’ militia, and even retaining a presence in Liberty Hall proved difficult at times.
Horner’s time in Dublin seems to have primarily been spent on work typical of the ICA in this period; intelligence gathering and the hiding of wanted men. His account gives a sense of just how much the attitude towards republicans had changed among the populace, but also how the entire national struggle had become synonymous with two words: Sinn Féin. According to Horner”in the middle of Dublin, if you rushed into a house and shouted ‘Sinn Féin’, every door shut behind you to keep out your pursuers.”
The No Conscription Fellowship and avoiding the war:
Nina Fishman, biographer of Horner, has noted that “Horner’s flight from conscription was hardly unique”, and as the First World War progressed it was increasingly clear”that being drafted for active service meant terrible hardship and suffering at the very least. High casualty rates had produced pervasive, collective war weariness.” She points towards the existence of a clandestine network, mainly operated by the No Conscription Fellowship, which assisted young British men in fleeing to Ireland. For most, the primary objective of this was to be provided with false Irish papers, giving them an Irish identity:
They could then go back to Britain, and find work, typically in a London war factory where anonymity was easy to preserve. Georgraphy made it comparatively easy for Welsh refuseniks to get to Ireland.
For Horner, the imperative to return home to Wales came with the news of the birth of his daughter. He wrote to his partner requesting that she be named Vol, in honour of Voltairine de Cleyre, an American socialist and feminist who had died in 1912. His next daughter would take the name Rosa, in honour of the murdered socialist leader Rosa Luxemburg.
Though it was remarkably dangerous, he boarded a ferry at Dun Laoghaire in the summer of 1918, complete with a suitcase containing left-wing propaganda from Ireland. Fishman notes that he was arrested when the ferry docked at Holyhead in North Wales “along with two other South Walian miners, Frank and George Phibben, brothers from an ILP [Independent Labout Party] family in Pentre, Rhondda. The brothers had fled to Ireland with two friends and made contact with the No Conscription Fellowship.”
The Phibben brothers were returning to Wales with newly acquired false papers. Horner and the Phibben brothers were sentenced to six-months’ hard labour, serving their sentences at Wormwood Scrubs in West London. Defiantly, he had told the court that:
I live alone to destroy the system, the cause of so much sorrow and misery to my class, and wait for the awakening of the workers of the world to a true understanding of their interests…Therefore gentlemen it should be clear to you that my conscience of these things has erected an insuperable barrier to the exclusion of any plans which have for its aim the transforming of me into a soldier in any capitalist army.
This was a time before the outbreak of the War of Independence in Ireland, the twilight period between the Easter insurrection and what was to come. That members of the Citizen Army assisted this Welsh refusenik in Dublin was quite remarkable. As Fishman has noted,”having no urgent need of men, their acceptance and sponsorship of political refugees from Britain was an act of solidarity, without immediate practical benefit to the Irish cause.”
Horner would become a founding member of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) in 1921, and he was later elected General Secretary of the influential National Union of Miners (NUM) in 1946. He died in September 1968. In his own words, he remained an incorrigible rebel until the end.